Travelista Guide to Cold Weather Layering

Cold Weather Travel Series : A series of posts about the particular challenges of traveling during cold weather and how to address them while still packing light and looking fabulous. For more on Cold Weather travel read here, here, and here.

The principle behind functional layering is simple. Instead of relying on heavy bulky items you rely on several lightweight “layers” to keep you warm. Each layer releases air which is then trapped by the next layer until you get to your weatherproof outer layer. As the weather or your activity changes you can add or take away layers.

These layering guidelines are taken from backpackers and hikers but they can be applied to travelers as well. Understanding these principles will not only help you pack lighter but they will keep you comfortable even in cold weather. While traveling you can be exposed to a variety of weather conditions. Your trip doesn’t have to suffer if you are prepared for them.

When packing for cold weather it’s all about that base, layer that is. Your base layer will be your hardest working layer. Your base layer is worn close to the skin, almost like a second skin and it’s job is to wick away moisture away from your body. By drawing perspiration away from your body the base layer helps maintain and regulate your body temperature by keeping you dry.

The materials best suited for base layers are outdoor technical synthetics like Polypropylene and Capilene and merino wool based materials such as Icebreaker or Ibex brand. Both are very lightweight with synthetics being slightly lighter than wool. If you are traveling to an extremely cold destination your base layer should be a thick blend or what’s generally referred to as “heavy weight” or “expedition weight”. However, for more typically cold conditions, a silkweight, lightweight or midweight base layer will prove more versatile. Just stay away from cotton or cotton blend base layers because they will not wick away moisture, instead they will hold moisture in making you clammy and cold and they are bulkier than synthetics or wool.

The main differences between synthetic and wool base layers is price, weight and smell. Synthetic base layers are much more inexpensive than wool. However, after having done much traveling with synthetics one thing becomes very clear. No matter how much you wash it, you can’t get rid of the smells it absorbs. Wool, however is almost magical in its ability to resist odors. In fact when I purchased a wool base layer the salesman told me to hold off washing it as long as possible. This makes it an ideal option for long term travelers since you won’t have to do travel laundry as often. Additionally, an odor absorbing base layer will keep your mid layers cleaner and fresher smelling longer. Finely spun, technical wool base layers like Icebreaker are not itchy and most importantly are breathable. If packing weight is a factor, wool does weigh slightly more than synthetics.

When selecting base layers look to outdoor outfitters such as REI, Sierra Trading Post and Backcountry. Brands to look for are Patagonia Capilene for synthetic base layers and Icebreaker, Ibex and Smart Wool for wool base layers. You can often find many of these brands discounted if you google search enough. As a synthetic alternative, Lululemon produces moisture wicking technical tops that can be used as base layers and feature “anti-stink” technology. Shown below Patagonia Top Base Layer, Patagonia Bottom Base Layer, Icebreaker Siren Sweetheart Long Sleeve, Icebreaker Everyday Leggings. I also find the Ibex Long Sleeve Base Layer good for layering because of the scoop neck.


Your next layers in your layering system are mid and insulating layers. With a breathable base layer, your mid layer helps you retain heat. Once again lightweight is key because you don’t want to trap too much heat. For winter travel packing purposes this will be a long sleeve layer such as a blouse, button down or tee. Make sure the style you choose work well over your base layer. In cold conditions you will want an additional insulating layer such as a lightweight, thin knit merino wool sweater under your weatherproof outer layer (look for a high gauge knit such as 14/16 which means it is finely knit and lightweight). Shown above H&M Long Sleeve Black Blouse, Athleta Ambassador Top (made of synthetic materials, quick drying and lightweight), Athleta Moonbeam Top (sheer lightweight wool blend), Black J. Crew Merino Wool Tippi Sweater, Athleta Merino Soma Sweater.

Finally, your weatherproof outer layer will protect you from weather elements like rain and wind and be your final barrier of protection against the cold. A classic wool coat can get you through most travel situations. But keep in mind that you will have to wear it and keep track of it on your travel days and it offers no protection against rain. Styles for wool coats range from classic to trendy. Choose according to your style and the style of your destination. Classic styles like LL Bean feature thinsulate insulation for added warmth. J Crew, Zara, ASOS and H&M also offer options in a range of prices. I also like to check Ebay for good deals on coats. Shown above LL Bean Classic Lambswool Polo Coat, Three Quarter Length.

If you are in a multi-climate, long term travel situation or just want to pack ultra light a bulky coat isn’t feasible. In this case we look to outdoor technical outerwear to meet our needs. Technical outerwear also offers the best protection against cold, rain, snow and wind and can be lightweight and compressible. Even though technical jackets and coats were developed for outdoor activities they have become more mainstream and brands like North Face can be found worldwide. I consider brands like North Face and Patagonia (or Pata-Gucci as we call it in my house) practically luxury brands because of their high price. It’s up to you and your personal style and your travel needs and destination whether you should go with a fashionable or functional outerwear option.

If you go the technical functional route try and resist the urge to get the amazing bright colors some of the jackets come in. Instead, if possible, opt for dark neutral colors like black, navy, grey, olive or even a dark berry. Some technical coats are a hybrid of functionality and fashion and feature insulation, rain and wind resistance in a stylish looking coat. Shown above Merrel Haven Redux Jacket.

In non-extreme cold temperatures you could consider a water proof and wind proof shell paired with an insulating jacket. The shell on its own will not provide any additional warmth but it will help conserve the warmth you’ve built up in your layers by blocking out the wind. You boost the warmth of the shell by layering it over a lightweight insulated jacket. The wind proof shell paired with the insulated jacket gives you several outerwear options to deal with changing weather conditions. If the weather warms up you can remove the insulating layer or remove the outer shell layer. If you are in a multi-climate or long term travel situation, a shell paired with an insulating jacket layer provides you with several outerwear options. Shown above Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket, Marmot PreCip Jacket.

Exteme cold weather calls for insulated outerwear. If you are traveling somewhere rainy or snowy you will also need your outerwear to be water resistant or water repellent. Once again you are faced with a natural and synthetic option when it comes to insulation. The differentiating factors are insulation effectiveness, cost, weight and moisture management. Natural goose down insulated coats cost more than synthetic but they provide more warmth than synthetics and at a lighter weight with better compression. However, if down gets wet it loses its insulating effectiveness and takes a long time to dry.

Some types of down are treated to be water repellent and can withstand getting slightly wet with a quicker drying time than pure down. Synthetics present an affordable option and the benefits of being able to withstand getting wet and drying quickly at a lower price than down. I own a Patagonia Nano Puff synthetic insulated jacket (Primaloft) and it got me through a half mile walk in a snowstorm after my car got stranded. With my base layers in place I wasn’t cold and the jacket never got soaked through. It dried in less than 15 minutes.

With both down and synthetics the more you move, the more body heat you produce and they capture the heat. So if you are not doing much physical activity but will be exposed to the cold, then down might be the way to go. If you will be briskly walking or engaging in light activity synthetics should keep you warm as well. As an example of how expensive down jackets can get the Canada Goose brand jackets are astronomical in price but they provide a high degree of warmth for extreme temperatures (like below zero cold). For most folks you will not need to go to that extreme. Other major brands to look for are Patagonia, North Face, Arc’teryx, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, Sierra Designs, Helly Hanson, Burton and Columbia. Look for good deals on these brands in the off-season. Shown above Patagonia Kai Lee Parka (synthetic), Canada Goose Victoria Down Jacket.

Additional cold weather accessories like gloves, hats and scarves will help you retain heat as well. In extreme cold weather make sure there’s plenty of functionality in your accessories like wind-proofing.

Excuse the long post but being warm when I travel is super important to me and I’ve researched it extensively. When you are packing light especially in cold weather every single item has to have a specific purpose and I wanted to extensively outline every layers purpose. Stay warm and travel happy!

How do you deal with cold weather travel?

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